Cleveland—It would be impossible not to know that the Republican National Convention is in town. The moment one deplanes at Hopkins International Airport, signage welcomes delegates and visitors to one of the biggest political events of the year. The streets downtown are lined with patriotic bunting, and virtually every bar and restaurant has a hokey political drink special or menu change.
There’s one other visible change that will be hard to miss this week: the heavy militarization of the Cleveland police department. Over the past several months, $20 million worth of equipment, much of it military-grade, has poured into the city for use during the convention.
There has been little public transparency about what the city has purchased and intends to wield this week, but the limited public records that do exist and the precedent of policing in prior host cities indicates law enforcement will essentially be in a paramilitary posture. That will be the case long after after the Republican delegates leave town. The Cleveland police department—already operating under a federal consent decree for excessive use of force—will be keeping everything it has bought, as do most convention host cities.
The presence of this military equipment has drawn deep concern from experts in Cleveland and beyond. Aside from creating a chilling effect on people who want to exercise their First Amendment protest rights, research shows the presence of heavy-duty weaponry and riot gear can create a tenser atmosphere and induce the protesters who do show up to act more aggressively.
And national tensions are already soaring, with police-community relations under potentially unprecedented strain. Two horrific shootings have targeted police officers in recent weeks in Dallas and Baton Rouge, with the latter incident happening only 24 hours before the start of the convention. Law enforcement across the country, and certainly in Cleveland, is unquestionably jangled and on edge.
Right in the middle of all this, Donald Trump will take the stage at Quicken Loans Arena. Mass protests have followed his rallies throughout the past year, with protesters often embracing civil disobedience and disruption to make their point. Several motorcycle gangs and white-supremacist groups have pledged to show up to “protect” the convention on behalf of Trump, and the state’s open-carry laws have already permitted a demonstrator armed with an assault weapon to prowl the perimeter of the convention zone on Sunday.
It’s a situation that both demands a large security presence, and can easily be inflamed by overkill from law enforcement.
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The RNC in Cleveland, like the DNC in Philadelphia next week, is designated a “national security special event.” The city of Cleveland received a $50 million federal grant in December to spend on security for the convention; $30 million will pay personnel costs, while $20 million has been spent on new equipment.
It’s hard to get a clear picture of exactly what the city has bought. The Nation filed a public-records request with the city government, asking for a list of purchases with the federal grant, but has not received a response. Local civil-liberties groups have also been requesting the information, but have not received a complete accounting.
“People have a right to know what’s coming into their city,” said Jocelyn Rosnick of the Ohio chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. “I think that these military-grade weapons can endanger people, the conventioneers, and the police alike.”
Limited public information does give a snapshot of the city’s rapid increase in policing equipment. Requests for bids that Cleveland put out earlier this year, in combination with a few purchase orders they have released, show that the city has purchased 2,000 sets of riot gear (the “Riot Suit Elite Defender,” manufactured by HWI Gear), 2,000 retractable steel batons for crowd control, and 2,500 steel barriers of varying sizes that will interlock around the convention zone. Cleveland also bought 24 helmets and vests that protect against ballistic attacks, 15 motorcycles, 310 bicycles, two night-vision mounts, 16 “illuminator aiming lasers,” and a video-surveillance system.
Last month, the city also dramatically increased the “protest insurance” policy it bought for the convention, quintupling the coverage amount. “It goes well beyond the normal slip-and-fall type insurance coverage. It basically indemnifies the city from any lawsuits resulting from massive civil-liberties violations, which we commonly see during political conventions and other national special-security events,” said Rosnick.
Such violations often occur during large-scale arrests, and 10,000 sets of flex cuffs recently arrived in the city, according to public purchase orders. “We know that the city is preparing for mass arrests,” said Rosnick. What she does not know is where, and how, any arrestees will be processed. Despite several pleas from the National Lawyers Guild, which will be providing legal services to those arrested during demonstrations, the city has not disclosed where they will keep anyone who is detained.
Rosnick said she estimates the city has room for about 1,000 additional arrestees, but that “I don’t know what the plan is in the event of a large-scale mass arrest.”
The precedent for expeditious processing in Cleveland is not good. Last year, when 71 people were arrested protesting the acquittal of Cleveland police officer Michael Brelo*, the city apparently didn’t know how to handle that many people at once. “Individuals were arrested, put into paddy wagons, they were driven around the city. Sometimes they were parked in a lot for a few hours,” Rosnick said.
All told, the price of the equipment disclosed in public documents so far doesn’t even come close to adding up to $20 million. “We are basically assuming that what we’re seeing is only a small percentage of what they have actually purchased,” said Rosnick. It took about six weeks after the 2012 RNC for Tampa Bay to finally reveal what security equipment it purchased.
Not even a full accounting from the city of Cleveland would reflect the additional equipment that will be brought in from “thousands” of other law-enforcement officers from 76 different local police units across the country.
But Rosnick and the National Lawyers Guild believe some dangerous, military-style crowd control devices have arrived in town. Of particular concern are LRADs, or long-range acoustic devices, which have increasingly been used by law enforcement in domestic crowd-control situations, despite being initially developed by the military after the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. The city of Tampa purchased two for the 2012 convention, and they’ve popped up at large protest sites since.
These devices emit an extremely loud noise, as high as 149 decibels, and anyone in the area is forced to flee immediately. (A military jet taking off is about 130 decibels.) People in the area can suffer shattered eardrums or permanent hearing loss.
“It may be more difficult for law enforcement to argue that using military equipment like LRADs is necessary or even narrowly tailored for crowd control, and the use of such equipment might raise First Amendment concerns,” said a report from the Constitution Project in 2015.
Rosnick said LRADs and other harsh crowd-control devices “are not [meant] for use on civilians, and can have serious consequences in a tightly packed urban setting.”
Earlier this year, the city was slow in approving purchase orders, further compounding the dangers of military-style equipment because local officers may not be fully trained on how to use them. As recently as April police union officials were publicly worrying that there wouldn’t be enough time to train officers to use the new tools. (An apparently harried purchasing process led to some mistakes, too—the riot gear arrived in only two sizes, meaning some officers will be wearing ill-fitting gear.)
Peter Kraska, chair of the School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University and an expert who has warned of the dangers of police militarization since the 1990s, said the potentially shortened training was alarming. “For the first time a police officer is going to be standing in an turret with an automatic weapon,” he said. “There’s just going to have to be an extensive protocol for how that should work, and they need to run through it again and again.”
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The events in Dallas and Baton Rouge have made a militarized local police force even more dangerous. Kraska, who often speaks with police officers and officials, said those two ambush shootings have had an effect on police psyches that cannot be overstated.
“These were such big and consequential events. [It’s like] if we had 9/11 happen, and then had 9/11 happen again,” he said. “Now the police can say, ‘We’re in the midst of an internal war.’ They are going to have full justification, at least public justification, to do what ever they want to do.” He pointed to the “full paramilitary garb” donned by police officers in Baton Rouge in the wake of Sunday’s shooting.
Overt aggression from police almost always leads to a counter-response from the public. Even the mere presence of military-style equipment can raise tensions, according to social-science research—it’s called the “weapons effect.” The Constitution Project Committee on Policing Reforms wrote in 2015 that “because individuals, whether law enforcement or civilians, associate military equipment with combat, using this equipment in the civilian context may cause law enforcement and community members to behave more aggressively, and even as adversaries.”
“Basically what we’re talking about the age-old problem of escalation,” said Kraska. “If you double down on what you’re doing, you’re only going to exacerbate the conditions you’ve already created.”
That’s the last thing Cleveland needs this week. Mass demonstrations and civil disobedience are widely expected to occur throughout the convention. Pro-Trump counter-protesters are also on the way, like the “Bikers for Trump.” A letter circulating among members ahead of the convention urged bikers to ride to Cleveland, because “We need to stand against paid thugs and show them that things are done differently in America. If we don’t stand now, in Cleveland we are giving it to the third world thugs and will never get it back.” White supremacists also claim to be traveling to the city to “defend” the convention.
On top of all that, Ohio is an open-carry state, meaning citizens can display their weapons around town—as one local man, armed with an assault rifle, demonstrated outside the convention zone on Sunday. The head of the Cleveland police union has begged Governor John Kasich to suspend the open-carry law, but the governor claims he does not have the authority.
“It’s dangerous [in Cleveland] even for those well-intentioned folks. You have your typical moron that straps on an AK-47 and wants to go to Qdoba and eat, and then people are showing up to protest as well,” said Kraska. “If there is a police officer hurt, it becomes incredibly difficult for police to discern who is acting properly and who is not.”
Kraska thinks it’s possible that the incidents in Dallas and Baton Rouge might actually end up discouraging unrest. “These shootings in such succession could result in a chilling effect—‘this is too much and we have to ratchet this back,’” he said. “A lot of things could happen that will turn this into no big deal.”
But there is another possibility as well, since Americans who have been increasingly arming themselves in recent years will show up to face a heavily and newly armed police force that feels anxious and vulnerable, all amid intense political turmoil. “We have a situation that I don’t think anybody could have predicted,” said Kraska. “Not only do you have this great awakening about things like mass incarceration and mass policing, but it’s coinciding with that an internal arms race that goes way beyond anything we had in the wild wild west, all coalescing into some perfect storm of violence that could get incredibly bad.”
*Correction: this article originally said 71 arrests occurred during protests over the Tamir Rice killing; they involved the acquittal of Officer Michael Brelo.